Booking a Group Cruise: Information for the Novice
Jan 28, 2004
The Bottom Line If you're looking to book a group cruise, find yourself a reputable agent who specializes in cruises and is familiar with groups.
As I am NOT a travel agent, I found myself fifteen months ago looking for unbiased help on the internet in booking a group cruise. I found very little information out there, so I thought I would share my personal experiences and insight. I knew quite a bit about cruising, however, I needed both help and advice in booking a group cruise for 38 of my closest friends who also happened to be volleyball players. I didn't want to get ripped off, and I was hoping to find a travel agent who had both experience and knowledge in the area. What I initially found were agents with little group experience or people who I later learned made promises they couldn't keep. I'm sure there are lots of competent people out there, but very early on, I had trouble finding them.
Nearly a year and a half later, our group cruise went off without a hitch. The information that follows can prove to be valuable if you are looking to coordinate a group cruise - be it with family or friends. I know I would have appreciated such input, had it been available.
Planning Time Line
First off, my friends and I probably spent close to a year talking about booking a cruise that we could enjoy together. We were a group of volleyball people who basically wanted to go on a cruise that had opportunities to play volleyball. That really limited our choices, as a lot of ships no longer had regulation sized volleyball courts on them. Of the few that did, itinerary was an other issue we had to address, as we wanted to have a day we could devote to volleyball - an itinerary with a private island was needed. In the summer of 2002, we settled on Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas Western Caribbean itinerary, complete with a regulation volleyball court and whose itinerary included a visit to a private island. I bring up this point to emphasize how important the itinerary and ship's facilities are to a group. Not all ships out there met our needs, so it's important to book the right cruise for your group.
Having made our choice in cruise ships, I began to contact travel agencies; companies that specialized in cruises. I must have interviewed over a dozen agents. At the time, I knew nothing about the nature of groups, except the limited information I could glean from agents I spoke to. Right off the bat, I found agents who didn't want to discuss the particulars of a group booking with me - the many rules regarding pricing, GAP points and perks (I'll go into this in more detail later). Often, my questions were met with some hostility, as though these issues were to be kept secret and not meant for a client's ear. I realize there will always be trade secrets, but when a group is involved, I found it helpful to know what was going on up front, and frankly, some agents just didn't want to answer my questions. Suffice it to say, I settled on an agent I felt had the necessary experience to deal with my group; someone familiar with Royal Caribbean's group department who would go to bat for us. Little did I know this agent would quit the company a month later! (This occurs more often than you might think.)
I made our booking only AFTER I had a chance to discuss in detail the particulars of our cruise. I inquired about our deposit and payment schedule, the agency's and cruise line's cancellation policy, our room inventory, what perks our group would be entitled to, and about our request to reserve the volleyball court on the ship for our group's exclusive use.
Having these details in writing is a must, however most agents I spoke to regarding this issue preferred I not go there. In my initial interviews, my requests for documentation were met with hostility more often than not. Our original agent had no problems providing us with documentation, so I'm certain others out there will be as accommodating. Get the particulars of your group booking in writing before any money is put down on the cruise. A clear understanding of what your agent can and cannot do for your group is also important. For example, our agent would not be able to independently coordinate group airfare, hotel accommodations and ground transfers as he only handled reservations made through the cruise line.
Please don't misunderstand my point. There are lots of competent agents out there, but finding the right one to represent your group isn't easy. Be an informed consumer and have an idea of what your agent is and is NOT willing to do for you. Be prepared to provide your agent with what he or she needs to make your group's cruise a reality, including your cooperation and support.
Pricing & Perks
Group prices are occasionally lower than individual booking prices, but in my case, they were pretty much the same. For every eight double occupancy cabins at Royal Caribbean, you got one berth free. Sixteen double occupancy cabins got you a free stateroom or the value of one stateroom rebated (minus port charges and tax). Our group split the rebated amount, however you can also use it yourself or gift it to a member of your group.
Royal Caribbean runs an incentive program as do other cruise lines for agents called the "GAP" program - "Group Amenity Points" program. In a nutshell, during certain periods of the year anticipated to be a "low" booking season on certain (not all) ships, the cruise line offers incentives to both agents and groups in the form of points redeemable for perks - free bottles of champagne, wine or fruit baskets per stateroom or for 50 or more passengers (in the case of Royal Caribbean) a one hour open bar party, shipboard credit or a bonus commission for the agent. Most (but not all) reputable agents redeem their points for a combination of bonus commission and perks for the group, but a few will give ALL their GAP points to the group, while a very small number will keep ALL the GAP points for themselves as a bonus commission. Our group was given a choice; either receive a bottle of wine or get a lower price. We chose the lower price, which looking back, was the best move we could have made, even if it meant that our agent used all our GAP points for a bonus commission. At one point, prices shot way up and came back down a little just prior to sailing. However, our rates continued to be lower, thanks in part to booking this cruise 15 months in advance and taking a discount rather than a so called "perk.".
If you're booking a group cruise, it's important to ask whether your booking will qualify for GAP points. All cruise lines have this policy one way or an other, even if it is called by another name. Our sailing was assigned a small number of GAP points - probably enough for a bottle of champagne for each stateroom. However, our rates without this perk were about $100pp less than the going rate at ANY time prior to our sail date. No bottle of champagne we would have received per cabin would have been worth the $200/cabin savings, so you can see why we opted for the lower fare.
Our agent was very reluctant to discuss the issue of GAP points with us (from what I understand this somewhat of a is a "trade secret"). But as a group coordinator, you must be aware of what perks your group might be entitled to, even if you opt out of those perks in lieu of something else.
As the group coordinator, you have the ability to negotiate your perks, given you meet the minimum requirements, which means you must have at least 8 rooms (double occupancy or better) booked on the ship. With that said, on selected sail dates, many cruise lines offer these perks for less than 8 cabins. These special group promotions frequently occur on Caribbean sail dates in the fall - during hurricane season, when rates are already low. If you're looking at a fall cruise, it's important you ask about this.
Another perk is the TC (tour conductor) credit. It is usually the price of the berth minus all port charges and government fees per eight rooms booked. The value assigned to the TC credit is based on how many rooms you have booked in a particular category. Since the majority of our rooms were balcony cabins, we got the raw price of one DA Balcony per 8 cabins booked rebated to us in the form of cash (it's really a check rebated to you AFTER the cruise). This too can be negotiated. We opted to have the cash rebated to us so we could divide it among our cabins as a shipboard credit - it came to $5o per cabin and seemed the most fair (I called in the shipboard credit to the cruise line using our credit card). Some people gift the berth/s to family members, while others keep it for their use and pay only the port charges and tax to cruise. Either way, you should have this also documented, so there is no debate later on what your booking is entitled to and how the TC Credit will be used.
A Cruise Contract
Some travel agencies draw up a cruise contract for their group bookings, while others do not. Insisting on this is a good thing, and I would recommend you only consider agencies that indeed do this to protect your interests. Having all aspects of your booking in writing, detailing everything is important. Unfortunately, many agency's feel uncomfortable with a "cruise contract." At the very least, you must have in writing the agency's cancellation policy and an outline detailing what perks, if any, the agency's intends to give your group.
Managing Your Group
When one books a cruise as far out as we did - 15 months prior to our sail date - one advantage is a low deposit to hold your space. It cost us only $100/stateroom or $50pp to deposit our cruise. We booked our cruise in September 2002 with a $50pp deposit. Another $200 deposit was due in July 2003 and our final payment was due in October 2003. That made budgeting for our cruise very easy. No one had problems with coming up with the deposit, and payments of ANY amount could be called in anytime in between. Our agency initially imposed a $25pp cancellation policy which was eventually waived, but a good agency will NOT have any cancellations fees, except those imposed by the cruise line.
It is important to compile information about your group members, including copies of their invoices complete with cruise line booking numbers. I had a binder with all this information that I could reference, and believe me a week did NOT go by when I didn't need this information. I also kept information regarding our group airline reservations, pre cruise hotel arrangements and our ground transportation charter in this binder.
Air and Ground Transportation
It was less expensive and more convenient to arrange our own airfare and ground transportation, however the cruise line will be happy to include airfare and ground transportation in an "air/sea" package. Although convenient, these packages are no bargain. The savings in airfare alone can pay for both pre-cruise hotel and ground transfers. I made arrangements with the group department at Ameican Airlines for our flights to Florida and I contacted a charter bus company in Miami to provide us with transportation to and from the port. All in all, every aspect of our trip went off with out a hitch, short of a few airline delays the day of travel that could not be anticipated.
It's best if you fly out the day before the cruise and spend the night at your port of embarkation. As we were traveling east from California, we found being able to spend the night in Miami made for a less hectic embarkation day. We made group arrangements with the Embassy Suites Hotel in Miami close to a year in advance of our trip to secure good rates. Although better rates at the last minute were probably available, we found our group rate to be somewhat less than advance booking internet rates.
Keeping in Touch
I found opening up a free group message board through Yahoo worked best for us. I wrote a monthly newsletter and passed along important billing and cruise information. It also served as away for people to remain in contact with one another and ask questions.
There are many other creative things you can do to remain in contact with your group, given you have the time and energy. One thing I didn't anticipate in doing this was how time consuming dealing with problems could be. We had many issues, including cancellation errors, people leaving and joining the group, payment due dates, special needs and requests and issues concerning dining. Anyone volunteering to coordinate a group cruise needs to be very organized and willing to spend time troubleshooting problems.
All in all, it was a positive experience, despite several very disappointing setbacks that eventually worked out. Anyone volunteering to lead a group needs to have the time and energy to deal with the booking. You need someone who is both assertive and tactful and capable of dealing with problems. Having access to email and being internet savy is a must.
I found having most group members here locally a plus, however, just about all communication took place via email. It's impossible for me to list all the issues I had to deal with concerning my group. However, I'd be happy address any and all questions. Feel free to leave a comment or send me an email at email@example.com.